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Bach – plus bite

CMSC The Bach Concert 2010

When Glenn Gould said he’d take the music of Bach with him to the proverbial desert island he failed to specify which Bach. It’s fair to assume, though, he did not mean all of them.

In a concert sponsored by – whom else? – the German Embassy, the Chamber Music Society of Colombo ducked and weaved and selected no fewer than four members of the prodigiously musical clan. And I confess I looked long and hard at the poster before committing to an entire evening on the Germano-classical scene. Concert items by Bach, Bach, Bach and Bach might well end up being so much musical champagne – and over two hours, even for a die-hard Bach fanatiker/in, that champagne could very easily go flat.

JC (‘I’ll be’) Bach’s overture to Artaserse was straight out of the CMSC playbook. Goodly baroque – even Handelian – zest in the ‘Allegro molto’; sheep safely grazing all over the pastoral ‘Andante’; the solid pomp of the ‘Presto’. Dust flew, players grinned. It was good and they knew it. (There is sometimes a risk of Bach being more exciting for the players than for the listener. But we’ll worry about that later.)

The wind section snuck off like naughty schoolboys hoping to bum a fag behind the bike-shed, and left the strings to wrangle the Sinfonia in F major, the ‘Dissonante’.

In defence of WF Bach (or perhaps not), his dissonances are not of the most aggressive stripe. The moniker of the piece does everyone the favour of advertising the experimental angle (as they said in Yes, Minister: ‘Always dispose of the difficult bit in the title.’), but the ‘Dissonante’ ain’t, frankly, all that. The closing ‘Minuetto’ is relatively violent, but the middle movements are essentially courtly, howsoever (en)harmonic. (Generally, it’s not so much about dissonance at all, but tonal shift.) Even at its most tonally rambunctious WF’s contrapuntal journeyings through the further reaches of the baroque-classical transition is hardly Beethoven’s Gross Fugue. No fault of the orchestra, who played it with their usual zeal; but the ten generations succeeding WF (‘wunderkind’? ‘wild-child’? what?) Bach have come to expect more and more – or less and less – from dissonance, especially when prominently billed.

Of course, no-one actually wants dissonance. It’s a kinky and circumstantial thrill which – as too many C.20th experiments proved too well – only makes sense against a basically harmonic structure.

That said, too much sonance is like a cake made entirely of icing, and it was good in this context to see the CMSC throw a little lime juice in the sugar syrup.

To wit: JS (‘who’s the daddy?’) Bach’s secular cantata ‘Non sa che sia dolore’. I’m not sure secularity is where the Bach of Bach’s strengths lay, and certainly this number – BWV 209 – does not come off well in comparison with, say, the Mass in B minor or the Christmas Oratorio.

Oboist Yoav Weiss stole it from the opening bars of the ‘Sinfonia’. His playing was absolutely exemplary, the tone flawless (none of that duckishness that is all but ineradicable in a double-reed), the pitch exact, running the upper and lower registers of the instrument without batting an eyelid. It was like having mercury poured in your ear. (Which I haven’t, by the way; but it sounds good.)

Aside from using a variant scoring for oboe (usually flute), the CMSC executive had taken the decision to augment the backing band from string quartet to sextet (plus ‘cembalo’ continuo). The reason for this quickly became apparent.

Preshanthi Navaratnam’s soprano has an operatic clout that, musically speaking, the Bachs (all of ‘em) rather predated. Not to mention the fact that the Germans (all of ‘em) would have seen anything Italienisch as sehr, sehr delicate and frightfully sensitive (bordering on the poofy), and expected a delivery to match. Navaratnam’s tone was too dark, too heavy, had way too much vibrato (even though she was clearly trying to contain it). She might have made a great Donna Elvira; but that wasn’t the task at hand (cause for pause, perhaps, for whomever does the tasking)… Sure, you wouldn’t entrust a Bach cantata to a boy treble; but somewhere in between would have been good.

Similarly, Bach himself may not have been too subtle in his setting of the Italian text (Classical-allegorical stuff about a traveller on the sea, lest you were interested), but one got the impression he was subtler than Navaratnam made out. Even with concessions to what the programme astutely tagged ‘the awkward Italian libretto’ it could not be said that she handled it well. In fact, for about the first minute, I was convinced she was singing in German. Knowledge of foreign languages is not an absolute prerequisite for a singer; but Navaratnam seemed fundamentally uncomfortable with the words, as though reading them for the first time. A ponderous emphasis on almost every word did not, alas, bear fruit in terms of diction. Orchestra and voice were not comfortably one – the band seemingly too loud and urgent, as if in compensation for the weight they were carrying – nor were the voice and oboe interplays nearly cheeky enough (also insufficiently florid was the continuo in the recits, where the extra pizzazz was sorely needed). The arias seemed to go on for ever, and were, in the word(s) of one learned colleague, ‘boring’.

Wherever possible Weiss provided a delicate, tidy counterbalance, and whenever he got a moment to himself it was clear the unequal contest was all over bar the shouting.

More JS after the break, with the famed Concerto for 2 violins in D minor, the German baroque’s equivalent of a dance-off. The two (or ‘2’) violins in question were Satish Casie Chetty and Shogo Kanamori. Gifted players both, and perhaps Casie Chetty had the lighter, more mellifluous action because he had the higher, more mellifluous line; but it seemed, from the outset, as if the duet was not so much imbalanced as stylistically split, and there were moments when their ‘discourse’ sounded like it was happening at cross purposes. Casie Chetty’s playing was more spirited (not to suggest inaccuracy), Kanamori’s more mathematically rigorous (not to suggest dullness). Both approaches work, even in Bach; just not together.

Things cohered as the piece progressed, but the duettists were never really far enough out from the body of the ensemble, a risk when their lines feed in and out of the full texture, and (even) in a very light orchestration (nine string players in all), the cellos – shock! horror! – were a little heavy, and even slightly out of tune. Nor did the momentum develop quite as much as perhaps it should. But it peaked in the ‘Allegro’, and in the run to the end the bowing-arms were moving in a regimented and determined ballet that would have put Korean border guards to shame.

[NB It’s difficult to marshal an ensemble without a conductor, I appreciate; but the audible sniff is not a good way to start numbers. (‘And what if someone else sniffed at just the wrong moment?’ quoth Miss December.) Likewise, while eye-contact is essential for unit cohesion, it reached such a level of camp theatricality in the Sinfonia (WF) that my companion commented dryly perhaps the orchestra should make more of it. They should not.]

JC (‘told you’) Bach returned to close out the programme with his ever-so-slightly-crazed Sinfonia no.6 in G minor. Putting the JCB into JC Bach (‘We’ll Move Your Earth’) this piece came with all the belly-fire we have come to expect from CMSC concerts, and it is this kind of performance ethos that has helped to reclaim period music from the mausoleum.

The ‘Andante’ had a pulsing, clock-maker’s progress, the melodic motifs and flourishes drawing themselves organically out of the rhythmic-harmonic structure. (It could have been tempting to take this too slowly, but wisely they did not.) Then the ‘Allegro molto’ – and this they did, the bows shimmering like coked-up hummingbirds. The texture built and built, to an impressively full noise from so small a group.

It was widely noted that the second half fairly zipped along, a testament to the right balance of Bachs great and small, and some astute variety in textures and tones. In the end, the fact that the composers were all members of one extended family was all but forgotten. Leading the bow at the end, the CMSC’s Artistic Director, Lakshman Joseph de Saram, announced, ‘We’re not going to play any encores, because we’re just… spent.’ Indeed, and quite right. And, perhaps, because another bit of Bach might just have been pushing it.

More or less as run in the (SL) Sunday Times.

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